When Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell started using the phrase “compassionate disruption,” it seemed a reasonable assumption that the homeless of Oahu could expect somewhat equal portions of each.

Instead, more creativity and energy seem to be going into the noun than the adjective.

Wednesday morning’s City Council agenda contains the latest efforts on the “disruption” front: bills to prohibit sitting or lying on public sidewalks.

LeadCrop Homeless Waikiki Kalakaua Ave black & white

A man sleeps on a sidewalk on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

One bill applies the sit-lie ban only to Waikiki, a second to areas zoned business and commercial and a third to the entire island. Cynics might say the multiple choices provide some cover for council members to ultimately pass only the Waikiki ban, as the mayor has proposed.

But the best option is to reject all of these measures because they criminalize the plight of Honolulu’s street people. Here’s why:

• The need has not been demonstrated.

It’s not unreasonable for the business community to want something done about unkempt panhandlers driving business away from their establishments. Hawaii’s tourism industry bemoans the fact that visitors have to see and walk around homeless people on the sidewalks, especially in Waikiki. It’s hard on the aesthetics of paradise, and earlier this year the claim was that it’s increasingly hard on Hawaii’s bottom line as well.

Then came an inconvenient revision of financial figures. This spring, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said visitor spending was on the decline compared to a year ago. When it found $100 million in income previously unaccounted for, the gloomy estimates went away.

The truth is, visitor spending is up. State economists said last month they expect 8.3 million visitors to spend $14.9 billion in Hawaii this year, which would set a new record.

The inaccurate projections came out at the same time that the mayor, the police and other city workers started aggressive sweeps of the Waikiki homeless to confiscate untended property, serve arrest warrants and enforce an already-in-place ban on being in public parks during late-night hours.

Perhaps the timing was a coincidence but the new tactics, which have continued, demonstrate that the city already has some significant tools for moving along the homeless.

• Adequate alternative living space for the homeless has not been provided.

The “compassionate” side of the approach is mostly tied to the idea of offering homeless people housing alternatives that they’ll actually use, then providing them with services to facilitate a transition to sounder financial footing.

State and local officials seem to be sincerely trying to make the concept of “Housing First” work on Oahu. In fact, national experts are here this week to train Hawaii officials on how to implement and run Housing First programs.

But they’re still learning more than doing, and the effort has proven devilishly difficult in a high-priced housing market that rewards developers for building upscale units, not affordable ones.

While long-term solutions have proven elusive so far, the mayor’s office has announced a couple of plans that are decidedly makeshift.

The most prominent would establish an encampment on 5 acres at Sand Island where the homeless would be provided with services and toilets. “This would not be a tent city,” a city official said, and indeed people looking to occupy this piece of ground currently overgrown with weeds and brush in an industrial area would have to bring their own tents.

A second proposal would place a few homeless people in a Chinatown high-rise along with its current low-income residents and some other new arrivals who are being treated for mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

Obviously, viable living alternatives through Housing First have yet to arrive on a large scale.

• Sit-lie bans haven’t worked well elsewhere.

They’ve been attempted in many American cities, especially on the West Coast, and frequently wind up mired in court challenges.

A sit-lie ban pushes the homeless population elsewhere, imposing some new rules on the cat-and-mouse game that police and the homeless already play.

When Berkeley, California, voters were considering such a ban in 2012, the UC Berkeley Law School conducted a study of the measures’ effectiveness elsewhere and found “no meaningful evidence to support the arguments that Sit-Lie laws increase economic activity or improve services to homeless people.”

On the other hand, implementation of such ordinances impose “non-trivial” costs on cities in the forms of law enforcement, punishment and defense against lawsuits, the study found.

It’s our own failure to provide adequate support to people suffering from financial crises, mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction that is at fault here. Without adequate treatment programs, counseling and housing alternatives, the sit-lie bills offer the bleak prospect of more homeless people going to jail and accruing fines that they can’t pay.

What’s “compassionate” about that?


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